Most of the traditional handicrafts are made by women: woven baskets, mats, and tapa cloth. The weaving is mostly of tan, brown, black, and white pandanus leaves. The large sturdy baskets have pandanus wrapped around coconut-leaf midribs. A big one-meter-high laundry basket makes an excellent container to fill with other smaller purchases for shipment home. (Remember, however, that the post office will not accept articles more than a meter long or weighing over 20 kilograms, though this does vary according to destination.) The soft, fine white mats from the Niuas, often decorated with colored wool, are outstanding but seldom sold.
Tonga's tapa cloth originates mostly on Tongatapu, where the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) grows best. When the tree is about four meters high the bark is stripped and beaten into pieces up to 20 meters long, then hand-painted with natural brown and tan dyes. The cloth itself is called tapa but the painted product is known as ngatu. Big pieces of ngatu make excellent wall hangings or ceiling covers. In the villages, listen for the rhythmic pounding of tapa cloth mallets.
The women are always happy to let you watch the process, and you may be able to buy something directly from them. Smaller pieces made for sale to tourists are often sloppily painted in a hurried fashion, and serving trays, fans, and purses made from tapa are often in poor taste.
Unfortunately too, some Tongan woodcarving is now oriented toward producing imitation Hawaiian or Maori "tikis" for sale to tourists. Some shops will tell you the figures represent traditional Tongan gods, which is nonsense. Buy them if you wish, but know that they're not traditionally Tongan. The beautiful war clubs one sees in museums are rarely made today, perhaps out of fear they might be used! Tongan kava bowls are also vastly inferior to those made in Samoa and Fiji.
Many handicraft shops in Tonga sell items made from turtle shell, whale bone, ivory, black coral, seeds, and other materials that are prohibited entry into the United States, New Zealand, and many other countries, so be careful. Triton shells, conch shells, giant helmet shells, giant clamshells, winged oyster pearl shells, trochus shells, green snail shells, and other sea shells may also be banned. It's one of the negative aspects of tourism that such a catalog of endangered species should be so widely sold. Tonga's sea turtles have been hunted almost to the point of extinction.
Continue to Arts & Crafts: Tongan Music »